As Oscar season shifts into higher gear, and as prognostications about which actors and actresses will win or get nominated grow louder, it’s worth remembering a pesky fact about the gold statuette: “The list of people who never got an Oscar is so illustrious, anybody would be proud to be a part of it,” as film historian David Thomson puts it.
Nevertheless, compassion for those who have never won and who find their work again in the running becomes an issue once more. For instance, four-time nominee Jeff Bridges has a lauded turn as an alcoholic country singer in the December release “Crazy Heart.” Is this his year, finally? Might he win because he’s “due”?
“He’s the great actor of that generation,” says Vogue film critic John Powers. “Actors want to act with him. Directors want him because he has weight. He’s the kind of person you could imagine the sentiment for, if it weren’t for the fact that the industry has all the sentiment of a slot machine.”
“If you want to know whether or not so-called sentiment trumps other feelings at the Academy, talk to Lauren Bacall and Juliette Binoche,” says film critic Leonard Maltin, referring to the 1996 Oscars, when conventional wisdom couldn’t foresee the then-little-known French actress besting a living Hollywood legend. “They were the two most shocked people at the Academy Awards that night.”
Similarly, Peter O’Toole’s eighth nomination a few years ago for “Venus” earned plenty of this-is-the-time buzz before Forest Whitaker emerged victorious on Oscar night.
Then there are the never-nominated, folks such as Colin Firth, who after years of reliably endearing work could see his fortunes change based on his portrayal of a gay professor in “A Single Man.”
“Firth is giving interesting and varied performances,” says Powers, who also notes that in a race without a front-runner, warm feelings for a solid actor doing a great job could take him far. “It’s a selling point. He won best actor at Venice, and he’s very good in it.”
Another never-nominated thesp is Christopher Plummer, who at nearly 80 is having a big year — a voice role in Pixar’s “Up” and star turns in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” and “The Last Station.” “The guy’s been around for years and years and has tended to be a supporting actor who gets taken for granted,” Thomson says. “He’s an interesting case.”
But Maltin acknowledges that while you can’t rule out “auld lang syne,” he doesn’t think Academy members vote for posterity.
“It’s timing and the playing field in a given year,” he says. “If you could have said to the Academy, ‘This is the last chance you’ll have to vote for Cary Grant,’ he might have won one. But nobody knows those things.”
Grant is typically cited as the biggest, most beloved acting name never to win an Oscar. (He, as O’Toole did, eventually earned an honorary Oscar.) Thomson says Grant’s big problem when it came to awards, though, was that “he made it look so easy. People who make things look easy do not do terribly well at the Oscars. Make it look hard, make it look painful, and the Oscars are more likely to come your way, I think.”
But a larger problem for perennial also-rans is that good will doesn’t have the currency it did in, say, the late ’60s when John Wayne nabbed what was generally seen as a career Oscar for his turn in “True Grit.”
“The historical memory in Hollywood is much shorter,” Powers says. “The Academy is getting younger, and there’s much less sentiment. O’Toole might have won for ‘Venus’ if it had made $100 million. You’re more likely to get honored for your career 25 years from now than you are today.”